As I read through your letters, I can relate to nearly every situation. I have already quit my office job and am beginning to think that an office environment is just not right for me. I am a veteran and a college graduate and have several years in Administrative work and I did fine while working for my small engineering firm where I trusted everyone, but my latest experiences have caused me concern.
I designed my career goals around technical writing and when I finally landed my first job as an assistant, I was delighted. I came into the job wanting to do the best I could possibly do, but had a boss, nearly sixty, who is not educated and obviously did not appreciate my presence. I also was working with another older employee who refused to answer any questions.
My original approach, as I am near 40 and no longer have much patience for playing games, was to just be myself and do the best job I can do, no matter what. This, however, did not play out very well. My boss felt that I was trying to “take over” the place. He did not want to teach me much and was irritated every time I asked him anything. Then the other older woman, who has access to nearly all of the company equipment, not only harbors information, but also equipment and complains if anyone bothers her at all, saying they are rude and disruptive (even with the slightest question).
To top it off, the company works in the oil and gas industry in Houston, Texas, and was recently bought by a foreign, international, investment company. The old-timers, as well as some new people, do not like this new management or the foreign employees that it imported. When I first arrived, my boss told me that grammar did not matter (my Department head later told methat it is my job to correct his grammar, but my corrections were not welcomed). He said that what mattered was that I not do anything to encourage the new foreign management “invasion.”
Well, perhaps I should have heeded this warning, but really, what was I supposed to do when one of the foreigners asked me for services? Tell him “no”? I tried to provide the service without my boss’s knowledge, but he found out anyway. He then called me in for review and cut me off from all resources, leaving me alone to finish a manual that was out of my league. I complained about this, and the manual went out correctly, but the repercussions never were resolved. I felt ostracized and finally just quit after only a year.
I fortunately landed another job nearly right away. Everyone was so nice and I thought it was going well. There were a few adjustments and bumps. I was late a few times because of the new location and unexpected traffic, and then I left a computer on one day. I also wore a jacket that one man made a comment about (seems he felt I was too dressed up). Otherwise, things were fine. Then, after just two weeks, I was let go. They said they wanted someone with more experience and that I did not “fit in” with the environment.
I really need some words of encouragement as I am about to give up and find a nice cashiering job.
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY DR. RICK BRANDON AND DR. MARTY SELDMAN
Dear Corporate Misfit,
Well, your sign-up name of “misfit” could explain much of your problem, since you do seem to repeatedly cultivate situations of “miss fit,” but we fear it’s partly due to conscious decisions that you’re making that make it tough for you to fit in smoothly.
TRY ADJUSTING YOUR SELF-TALK OR “FRAMING” OF THE SITUATIONS
When you use phrases such as not wanting to “play the game,” “just be myself,” “no matter what,” and “trusted everyone,” we start to worry that you fall into the classic Political Style which we call a Power of Ideas individual, but the extreme which we refer to as “Under-Political.”
Yes, you can actually be hurting yourself, your colleagues, and even the company if a good, hard-working, competent, results-driven person is kept out of the loop, marginalized, and eventually let go. Especially in your first job mentioned, a small engineering firm, it’s likely the culture was less political, so that your survival and success did depend more exclusively on your substantive expertise.
But other companies, like energy sector, good old boy network driven enterprises unfortunately may tend to be more political, so you typically do need to be more careful to have your antennae out to be a student of the corporate culture, norms, and “unwritten rules” for fitting in. That’s reality!
Simply deciding and rationalizing to yourself that you don’t want to cop out on who you are is one way to frame the need to adjust your approach, but that can also start sounding like the Popeye the Sailor Man cartoon when he says, “I Yam What I Yam and Dat’s All That I Yam!” This CAN become a form of rigidity that eventually penalizes and blocks you from greater boundary flexibility.
Instead, look at this as flexing a new muscle to learn adaptivity, since it’s the price of the dream of playing in the sandbox with others! It’s a little crazy, but remember the old Woody Allen joke about the man who complains to the psychiatrist that his cousin is convinced he’s a chicken, whereupon the doctor asks why the family doesn’t have the cousin committed to a mental institution. The man’s reply is, “Well, we need the eggs!” As crazy as corporate life can be, millions try to fit into various sometimes seemingly insane scenarios because they “need the eggs.”
So we do worry that you may carry around a bit of a feeling of moral indignation when you see people not pulling their weight or must cope with less effective people, with a possible emotionality of “damn it, it shouldn’t have to be this way.” If so, try to calm down and take these with a more matter-of-fact approach, especially with situations in which one can predict some degree of either lazy, cover your butt, coast till retirement behavior such as in the first picture you paint with the two seniors who seem defensive and threatened by your hard work and higher education. Again, just accept that some near-the-end-of-the-liners may take short cuts and resent your work ethic, so aim for doing your thing in ways that don’t show them up, may ease their road, approach them in ways that state the benefit to THEM of sharing information, etc.
The examples of being told by the Department Head to correct grammar, but by the boss to not do so is simply a classic dilemma of receiving conflicting messages from two bosses. Consider weighing out the power balance if you feel you MUST alienate one of them, but we suspect a bit of verbal tact would allow you to politely explain the “double bind” you’re in to the lower level boss. Speak the truth in ways that assure him it’s not your personal issue, simply an effort to do as you’ve been asked. Then request HOW you can do the grammar “coaching and assistance” (not “correction”) in a way that’s least disturbing and most helpful (e.g., as it occurs, making mental notes and sharing a few examples in one brief weekly data dump, in written or verbal delivery, etc.). Be sure you also stroke the ego of the boss being coached pointing out the many areas in which you’d appreciate and welcome HIS input. The situation about the 2nd double-bind, damned-if-you-do-damed-if-you-don’t conflict of being told to not assist “foreigners” but feeling like you have no choice since the person asked you is another example of your tendency toward black-and-white, either-or thinking that might be a bit too rigid for being agile in the grey zone of corporate life. The right thing to do depends on many factors, so maybe you help (risking censure from above) and maybe you don’t (citing an appropriate time management-oriented or roles-and-responsibility reason for referring the inquisitor to your superior for permission to help). But certainly need not feel, “what was I to do?” or you can’t say “no.” Look what happened when you painted yourself into a corner.
BOTTOM LINING IT
So the big theme here is some possible rigid thinking about politics, egos, typical crazy-making antics, corporate conflicts, and need to read the specific culture of each unique company to fit in (including appropriate image). It does NOT mean you’re being fake or phony, simply recognizing reality and stretching your flexibility muscle and skills, an additional dimension of corporate IQ and competence on top of your obvious task level technical writing prowess. Fair enough?
We hope this is helpful and urge you to grab our book for more insight into your Political Style and styles of companies you may join, so you can adapt to each new culture if you choose, or “go against the grain.”
Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.
Rick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. Co-authors,
Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success
Rick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. are Co-authors, Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success. Dr. Rick Brandon is CEO of Brandon Partners. He has consulted and trained tens of thousands at corporations worldwide, including Fortune 500 companies across a variety of industries. Dr. Marty Seldman is one of America’s most experienced executive coaches. His 35-year career includes expertise in executive coaching, group dynamics, cross-cultural studies, clinical psychology, and training.